Teaching in a Time of Hate and Violence

IMG_3810The First and Second Amendments of the United States Constitution, along with their current legal interpretations and applications as they relate to our public schools and universities, weigh heavily on my mind—especially this week in the wake of the latest in the string of school mass murder shootings and in the wake of the latest in the string of “public square” free speech debates at the University of Washington where I teach.

The Second Amendment right of citizens to bear arms should not include the right of angry, violence-loving individuals to own and use assault weapons on our school children as has happened in rapid-fire, soul-numbing fashion in our country. It should not include the right to bring—and use—firearms to the public squares of our universities (as happened at my own university last January during a “free-hate speech” protest/counter-protest on Red Square, pictured above with our grand Suzzallo Library in the background. See the Seattle Times article “Couple charged with assault in shooting, melee during UW speech by Milo Yiannopulos” by Mike Carter and Steve Miletich, April 24, 2017) Of course, we need better mental health services throughout our country, but this is not about mental health, it is about saner gun safety regulations.

Gun-related violence in our country is a major public health issue. Although hampered by the successful lobbying efforts of the National Rifle Association to curtail public health research since 1996 (see: The Atlantic article “Why Can’t the U.S. Treat Guns as a Public-Health Problem? by Sarah Zhang, April 15, 2018), we do have sufficient evidence to start making positive changes. Nicholas Kristof’s NYT article with amazing graphics, “How to Reduce Shootings” (February 15, 2018) illustrates some of these options. I do take issue though with his point that gun-violence deaths at our schools pale represent just a small fraction of the total number of gun-related fatalities (including suicides) in our country. That does not take into account the detrimental health effects of the daily very real threat of school shootings on the millions of students, teachers, coaches, and administrative staff members at all of our schools, colleges, and universities.

And as to the First Amendment right to free speech that includes hate speech—because one person’s hate is another person’s love or something along those lines? Having grown up during the Civil Rights era and personally benefiting from the rights to both free speech and academic freedom, I do understand (even if I don’t like) the fact that a known White Nationalist group (sponsored by the UW student club College Republicans) was allowed to speak at the University of Washington campus last Saturday. What I do not understand and do not agree with was the fact that other legitimate UW scheduled events that day—as well as the two UW libraries on Red Square—were forced to close/be cancelled because of the credible threat of violence incited by this event. A white nationalist hate group, in effect, closed the major libraries of our public university for an entire day, and in the name of free speech? Our library’s mission statement includes: “advances intellectual discovery and enriches the quality of life by connecting people with knowledge.” Our libraries are core elements of the teaching, research, and service mission of our public university. Their work cannot be allowed to be curtailed by hate and violence.

#enough  of all of that.

Service-Learning Changed My Life

Version 2I am forever grateful for the liberal arts education that included meaningful community-engaged service-learning. (Thank you Oberlin College!) I continue to wrestle with ways to bring the humanities and real service-learning* into my own work teaching undergraduate nursing students. The combination of a grounding in the humanities (in my case medical ethics through Biology and Religion majors) and service-learning, changed my life—and my career—for the better.

In my sophomore year at Oberlin, I took a child psychology course with Dr. Friedman that included a service-learning opportunity of working as a Big Sister or Big Brother to a child or young teenager at a children’s group home on the outskirts of town. Starting in that course and continuing until I graduated and left Ohio, I was the Big Sister for a young girl (she was 12 when I started working with her and I was just 18). I took her on weekend outings around the college town, taught her to swim in the college pool (I was a lifeguard and swim instructor), and visited the town’s Santa for a photo that I treasure. At the time I started working with my little sister I was a pre-med Biology major and thought I had my future life and career clearly charted. But that service-learning experience, accompanied by further private reading study on child abuse with Dr. Friedman, led me to medical ethics and on into a career in nursing.

It is instructive to re-read one’s college term papers. I am fortunate that my mother, who was my best proof-reader, kept all of my early writing going back to my age 7 haikus, and she gave them to me in a package before she died. (Thank you Mom!) Here is an excerpt from a term paper titled “Child Abuse: A Wider and Closer Look” that I wrote for Dr. Friedman in 1979:

“Who would contest that poverty creates the most stressful situation imaginable? If we want to truly treat child abuse, we have to face the fact that poverty is a very real influence. How can anyone possibly cure poverty? That question touches a sore spot in all of us comfortably full and well-clothed individuals. We recognize an inconsistency in our moral structure and in our social structure. The harming of children—all of the legislation, psychoanalysts, psychiatrists, and self-help groups in the world won’t cure it. The idea of changing our society is radical and frightening because we would have to risk losing what we have and feel safe with. How long will the present interest in child abuse last? Will we take the chance and try to cure child abuse, or will we continue placing Band-Aids on the sore, with our heads turned away from the real problem?”

Indeed, four decades after writing that paper I continue to ask similar questions—and to work towards finding solutions to those big, wicked problems. But it was my foundational liberal arts education combined with service-learning that is what prepared me for my life and my career.

* Real service-learning is (as defined by the University of Washington Carlson Leadership and Public Service Center):

“Service-learning is a learning experience that combines service with the community with structured preparation and reflection opportunities. Service opportunities are tied to academic coursework and address concerns that are identified and articulated by the community.

As students engage in service-learning, they learn about the context in which service is provided, the connection between their service and their academic coursework, and their roles as community members.”

Listening to Skid Road

IMG_4007Listening to Skid Road: Join us for a lunchtime panel discussion on the intersections of health, homelessness, and racism in King County, as well as explorations of the moral responsibilities of the University of Washington in addressing these issues. Hear from panelists who participated in the oral history collection for the Skid Road project, currently on display in the University of Washington Odegaard Library. Panelists include Krystal Koop, MSW; Nancy Amidei, MSW; Sinan Demirel, PhD; Rebekah Demirel (author of the memoir Nothing’s for Nothing: Transformation through Trauma) and Eric Seitz, RN; with Josephine Ensign (PI of the Skid Road project) as moderator.

Date: Tuesday February 6, 2018
Time: 11:30am-1:30pm
Place: University of Washington Odegaard Library, Room 220
Light lunch and beverages provided
Open to the Public

4culture_colorSpecial thanks to public historian Lorraine McConaghy, PhD for her support and mentorship throughout this project.

This project was supported, in part, by an award from 4Culture. Additional support for the audio portion of the DS videos comes from Jack Straw Cultural Center. My Skid Road project was also funded, in part, by the University of Washington Simpson Center for the Humanities, the University of Washington College of Arts and Sciences, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and Humanities Washington.

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Speaking Truth to Power: Consequences

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Detail from “Chaos” 2016, mixed media/Josephine Ensign

Speaking truth to power always has consequences for the speaker. It is dangerous. That is part of the definition of parrhesia, the ancient Greek word and concept of free or bold speech. There is an ancient Greek word for someone who speaks truth to power: parrhesiastes. To me, Rachael Denhollander is an excellent current example of a parrnesiastes. 

As the French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault stated in his 1983 speech on the subject, “…parrhesia is a verbal activity in which a speaker expresses his personal relationship to truth, and risks his life because he recognizes truth-telling as a duty to improve or help other people (as well as himself). In parrhesia, the speaker uses his freedom and chooses frankness instead of persuasion, truth instead of falsehood or silence, the risk of death instead of life and security, criticism instead of flattery, and moral duty instead of self-interest and moral apathy.” (From Michel Foucault’s speech, “The Meaning and the Evolution of the Word Parrhesia.“)

Substitute ‘she, her, hers (and herself)’ for the above—and recognize that by death Foucault meant not only literal death but also a large personal loss such as one’s personal or professional reputation—and we have an excellent description of the courage of Denhollander (and the other girls and women willing to testify) in helping bring to light and to justice the despicable actions of the serial pedophile and sports physician, Larry Nassar.

As Denhollander writes in her recent (January 26, 2018) NYT op-ed “The Price I Paid for Taking On Larry Nassar”, as a result of her being the first to go public with her accusations of sexual abuse at the hands of Nassar, she lost her church, her closest friends, and her privacy.  Also, since she happens to be a lawyer, she was accused of being an ambulance chaser and an opportunist. Despite all of that, she used her freedom (and her privilege), chose frankness and truth and moral duty to speak the truth to oh so many powers. Because, as she points out, it was not only Nassar who was at fault here, but also all of the institutions (most notably Michigan State University), as well as the many coaches, trainers, and psychologists that colluded to allow him to perpetuate his abuse of girls as young as six.

Denhollander concludes with this call to action for each and every one of us:

“Predators rely on community protection to silence victims and keep them in power. Far too often, our commitment to our political party, our religious group, our sport, our college or a prominent member of our community causes us to choose to disbelieve or to turn away from the victim. Far too often, it feels easier and safer to see only what we want to see. Fear of jeopardizing some overarching political, religious, financial or other ideology — or even just losing friends or status — leads to willful ignorance of what is right in front of our own eyes, in the shape and form of innocent and vulnerable children.”

My hope is that we all choose to be part of a community that works to prevent this type of abuse to happen and that fully supports those who have the courage to speak truth to power. And, we should remember the consequences of not speaking up, of staying silent.

 

Read Like You Give a D@#n

IMG_3959Empathy is in short supply. Anti-empathy, racism, xenophobia, misogyny and all things ugly are being modeled and stoked by too many people and institutions—including, of course, the President of the United States. Effective resistance to all of this comes in many forms. It is not enough and is self-indulgent to be simply outraged. Fire and fury is not the answer. Do something: Read like you give a d@#n.

You do not need to read or re-read Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, or review the history of book-burning, book-banning, author suppression and outright killing (as by Hitler during WWII), to know that books and the mind (and empathy) expanding knowledge they contain is powerful stuff indeed.

My beloved local library system, Seattle Public Library (SPL), has a gutsy and well-read patron who posted “Sh**hole Countries: A Reading List” on their BiblioCommons site. The SPL has added a disclaimer that the post and the list of recommended books is not a publication of the SPL, but kudos to them for supporting the sharing of diverse opinions and resources. Even if you happen to find the content of the brief post either too in-your-face or borderline offensive, be sure to look at (and hopefully read) some of the amazing books on the recommended reading list.

Of course, reading real literature (non-fiction, fiction, poetry, plays) does not necessarily build empathy and equity. Mind and heart expansion require having at least a doorway or a window or a crack in the walls of mind and heart for them to open and expand. But good books and reading them like you give a d@#n do have amazing, lovely, powerful, radical effects on not just the individual reader but also the world.

For the past three summers I have posted a summer reading challenge list of books that have a social justice, global, and health humanities bent. (See “Summer Reading Challenge with a Health Humanities/Social Justice Slant” from June 2, 2015; “Summer Reading Challenge 2016” from May 28, 2016, and; “Summer Reading Challenge: Global to Local” from June 11, 2017.) You don’t need to wait until the summer or a vacation of some sort to start reading real books, radical books, world-view changing books.

Navigating Towards Adulthood

IMG_3677.jpgWhat does it take to become an adult these days? What does it take for a young person experiencing homelessness to become an adult? And, is it true—as many adults now claim—that young people in general, housed and un-housed, are way too coddled and over-protected and kept in a nest of some sort (including an emergency shelter or transitional housing nest) for so long that they end up with arrested development?

I’ve been thinking about these and related questions. They matter to me in my roles as parent to one young adult and one adult (and newly married); as university professor working with hundreds of young adult students; and as a nurse practitioner and researcher working with teens and young adults experiencing homelessness.  Having personally survived a difficult adolescence and young adulthood (including a spiral into homelessness), I care deeply about doing what I can to help young people navigate this important and precarious time of life.

And the nest/arrested development comment above that includes emergency and transitional housing/shelter for teens and young adults? That comes from the fascinating assortment of reader comments to a recent Seattle Times article on the Doorway Project that I am working on. The article by Scott Greenstone, “A cafe where no one is homeless: one solution to youth on Seattle streets” (December 11, 2017), highlighted the story of Brad Ramey, a young adult age 25 years. A transplant from Alaska, Ramey stays at ROOTS Young Adult Shelter (for young people 18-25), takes classes at a community college, and during the day spends time in coffee shops and the public library to stay warm and dry. Many of the reader comments included some variation of “he is not a youth, he is an adult,” along with the tired tropes of “there are plenty of jobs to be had” and “more enabling services attract even more and ‘lazy’ homeless people.”

I find these comments helpful in that they voice biases, views, and misperceptions that are likely widespread. They may, in some cases, represent teachable moments, at least for people who are open to new information. For instance, it seems there is confusion as to the definition of “young adult.”  The World Health Organization uses the term “adolescents” to describe youth 10-19 years (or age of majority for a particular country), “young adult” for persons 20-24 years, and uses the inclusive term “young person” for individuals ages 10-24 years. There are no standard age definitions of “adolescent” or “young adult” in the US. However, the ACA provision for health care coverage of young adults on a parent’s health insurance policy is until age 26. I wonder how many of the negative reader commentators to the Seattle Times article were by comfortably employed and housed parents of young adults taking advantage of this ACA provision.

Our country’s social and class and race structures continue to exert large and inequitable effects on adolescent development and life trajectories for our young people. I recently read sociologist A.B. Hollingshead’s now classic book Elmtown’s Youth (New York: Wiley, 1949). about “certain significant relationships found to exist between the social behavior of adolescents and social stratification in a Middle Western community immediately before the effects of WWII were apparent locally.” (p. 3) I found this to be a fascinating book, especially in the vivid descriptions of social class (including inadequate housing and homelessness) and its effects on adolescent development, on what are now called adverse childhood experiences/traumas, and life trajectories—and in the fact that so much is the same if not worse 78 years after Hollingshead’s research. As he concludes in his book, “Those aspects of the culture which foster and perpetuate the class system over the against the ideals of official America, embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, will have to be changed, if there has to be change, before Americans will face in practice the ideals they profess in theory.” (p. 453) Navigating towards adulthood is difficult under the best of circumstances. Navigating towards adulthood while experiencing homelessness and the traumas that often contributed to homelessness is exponentially more challenging. But not impossible.

ABCs for the New Year

IMG_3911A is for anger. It is necessary.

B is for brooding.

C is for chaos. It is necessary.

D is for deliver us from all things evil.

E is for everything good in the world.

F is for framing (and re-framing) the issue.

G is for grace. It is necessary.

H is for happenstance.

I is for a return to the improper first person because that is who we are.

J is for jerry-built or jury-rigged because that is what the journey of life requires.

K-L-M-N-O-P is for “keep learning more nonsense or perish.”

Q is for questioning. Everything.

R is for rest. It is necessary.

S is for solitude. It is necessary.

T-U-V is for the undoing of violence. Everywhere.

W is for “we may overcome some day if we work together.”

X is for xystus, that shaded walkway lined with trees where philosophical conversations       are likely to occur. And a word which gave me an excuse to consult the OED.

Y is for yes and for everything that is infinite.

Z is for a zeal for life and for all things social justice.

Now I know my ABCs (for the New Year resolutions), won’t you write your own?